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A recent Uyghur-language short film called “Dream From the Heart” (English and Chinese subtitles) tells the story of a group of boys from Qaraqash, a county of more than half a million people in Southern Xinjiang. Shot as part of China Southern Airlines’s new ad campaign by the award-winning director Zhang Rongji (张荣吉), the film references the true stories of how self-taught and underfunded young people from the deep poverty of Hotan and Kashgar prefectures struggle to compete with more privileged opponents.
So many teams of young confident athletes, musicians, speech competitors, and scientists in Southern Xinjiang practice all of their lives to reach the big stage in the city, only to find themselves blocked by the logistics of getting across the country or traveling across the globe. Many times they don’t have the equipment, the coaching, worldly knowledge, or the political support of people in the cities – all they have is a will to succeed and the toughness that comes from life in the desert. This struggle to have their skills recognized has been most widely reported when it comes to young footballers. Many stories have been written about the way Uyghur players sleep on the floor with “standing only” tickets as they make the long journey East.
In this film, a group of kids from Qaraqash dream of competing against their peers in a provincial tournament in Ürümchi. Since they don’t have the funds to travel, one of the boys sends a handwritten letter to China Southern Airlines asking them to sponsor the team and give them plane tickets. Miraculously the plan succeeds and the company sends them uniforms and tickets. At the tournament they compete against teams sponsored by such companies as Herembag – the Turkish-style restaurant franchise which has taken Xinjiang by storm over the past few years – and other well-funded urban teams. Due to their “camel-like” toughness they succeed in scoring a goal, but they are not able to beat the taller and stronger players from the city. In the end they come to realize that with hard work and the help of others they can begin to achieve their goals, but that achieving dreams takes continual practice and dedication.
The kids in the film are really from Qaraqash – they pronounce the word “one” as only a Qaraqashliq can: a drawn-out “burr.” I have no reason to doubt that the life goals they describe – footballer, doctor, policeman – at the end of the film are anything other than truly their own. Qaraqash, which is one of Hotan’s most densely populated counties, is jammed full of farmers whose lives revolve around weekly horse-riding competitions and the giant farmer’s bazaar that takes place every Sunday. People there live in a smaller world where gossip about the newest regulations and the phenomenal abilities of the local Uyghur traditional medicine doctors circulate over neighborly teas.
But people are also connected with the outside world. People watch the Voice of the Silk Road religiously every Friday night and they debate which professional European team (many of whose matches are shown with Uyghur-language commentary on Xinjiang Channel 10) is going to take the championship. The market for smart phones in Qaraqash is thriving. Many people dream of a different kind of life.
Despite being a bit overly melodramatic and fitting neatly within Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” political rhetoric, this short film demonstrates the way a private industry leader can help build a path from the countryside to the city. It shows how compassion and sympathy for the less fortunate can help people cross a desert and achieve things that they could only dream about. The film shows us that with a little bit of effort and a willingness to listen, filmmakers like Zhang Rongji can make a big difference in how lives of the poor and ethnically different are perceived.
Of course the film doesn’t show us how people from places like Qaraqash are cordoned off into a special line when they arrive at the Ürümchi airport. It doesn’t show us how people that don’t have a Uyghur-specific “People’s Convenience Card” or, as Uyghurs refer to it, a “Green Card” are sent right back to Hotan. It doesn’t show us how, for many kids whose parents don’t have special connections or money to bribe local officials, it is impossible to get this travel permit. It doesn’t show us the way government regulations during the “People’s War on Terror” is making Southern Xinjiang inescapable. Then it would be an altogether different film.
Beige Wind runs the website The Art of Life in Chinese Central Asia, which attempts to recognize and create dialogue around the ways minority people create a durable existence, and, in turn, how these voices from the margins implicate all of us in simultaneously distinctive and connected ways.